The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 25, 2017
Scripture: Acts 8:26-40
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What is Preventing You?
I have actually found the past three weeks very engaging as a preacher. I hope you all have felt some measure of engagement, as well! The weeks since Pentecost Sunday have been, appropriately enough, Spirit led. I wasn’t sure where they would lead, but we found another journey for these first weeks of the summer, discovering something to live for in the Way that began after the life of Jesus.
You see, since Pentecost on June 4th, we have been reading from the Book of Acts and exploring the first communities that were gathering together after the life of Jesus, gathering in his name. The entire book of the Acts of the Apostles describes revolutionary changes in the ways a growing crowd of first-century Jews began to view their covenant with God, based on their relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, whom they believed to be God’s Messiah, in Greek, Christ, in both cases meaning, God’s anointed.
For the past two Sundays, and again today, we’ve been exploring some passages in Acts that are post-Pentecost – we read the Pentecost scripture form chapter 2 on Pentecost Sunday, June 4th and have moved just beyond it for the last two Sundays – so, post-Pentecost, but pre-Paul. Paul showed up last week, as an overseer of Stephen’s execution, and while we didn’t read the scripture itself, I drew our attention to the verses that opened chapter eight: And Saul (Paul) approved of their killing (Stephen) … Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women (and) committing them to prison. So, we have been decidedly “pre-Paul” in our journey since Jesus death.
Paul’s conversion, his “road to Damascus experience” happens in chapter nine, so very soon, but still not yet. Still not for this Sunday, at least. One more expedition this morning into the Jewish-Christian community before Paul started preaching Christ crucified.
Pray with me …
And, before we read our lengthy passage this morning, another reminder. The establishment of a world religion known as Christianity is still decades away, perhaps a hundred years in the future. We’re still in the first decade, or so, after Jesus death, perhaps about 40-50 in the Common Era, or AD. Judaism is still the apostle’s mother faith.
We’ve revisited Peter’s first sermon, just after the Pentecost experience, a sermon that led to three thousand baptisms and the description of a community that shared with all, cared for all, and that ate, drank, and worshipped together always. Last week we explored the implications of Stephen’s lecture to the High Jewish Council not too long after this initial success. Peter was praised for his first sermon about this new Messiah. Stephen was stoned for his. With that first recorded death the persecution of this new cult began in earnest. That persecution forced the early believers, the followers of this new movement, to flee Jerusalem, to get away, and they scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. This was surely not part of Saul’s or the other persecutor’s plan, but (as we noted last week) it is a primary message of Luke’s. The scattering serves to spread the word of the gospel and introduce the mission of the church to the wider world.
So, this morning, we find ourselves in the wider world, beyond Jerusalem and house-churches and Jewish councils, on a wilderness road that leads out of Jerusalem and beyond Judea and Samaria. Listen for the Word of God …
Read Acts 8:26-40 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
As the Book of Acts began, even before the arrival of the Holy Spirit in chapter two, Luke puts these words into the mouth of Jesus as he speaks to the apostles: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Two weeks ago Peter preached, shared his witness, in Jerusalem. Last week Stephen’s death by stoning provided the impetus for the apostle’s flight from the city and they scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Their witness to Jesus, of course, went with them. And this week … we move to the ends of the earth.
The Samaritan mission under the leadership of Philip that is described earlier in this chapter, right after the verses that note Saul’s “ravaging of the church,” marks the first step in the spreading of the word beyond the bounds of traditional Judaism. That first step was received with joy and thanksgiving, and this morning, with the Samaritan mission left in the good hands of Peter and John, the “witness” to Jesus as Christ reverses course and heads south.
Philip is our apostle “du jour” this morning, though this is not the Philip Jesus called. This Philip, we learn in chapter six, is one of seven Greek-speaking Jewish Christians appointed by the Twelve to tend to the needs of others, especially widows, in the Greek-speaking portion of the Christian community. Later on, in chapter twenty-one, we’ll learn that this Philip was known as “the Evangelist” so as not to be confused with Philip “the Apostle.” This Philip settles finally in Caesarea (the seat of Roman government in first-century Palestine) and has four daughters who were considered prophets in that Christian community. But before all of that, and in our reading this morning, he is directed by an “angel of the Lord” – the true protagonist of our story, actually, more on “the angel” in a moment or two – directed by an “angel of the Lord” to reverse course and walk toward Gaza on the Mediterranean coast.
As Philip engages the Ethiopian eunuch, Jesus’ command from chapter one is fully realized. The apostles and those commissioned by them in the first years of life after Jesus have been witnesses to the Messiah Jesus in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and now to the ends of the earth. In Luke’s world “an Ethiopan” meant anyone with dark skin from the largely unknown lands below Egypt. And the lands below Egypt, like those lands beyond western, eastern, and northern known boundaries, represented “the ends of the earth” to early first century Jews. The goal of this early “gospel preaching,” to be the instrument of the restoration of all people under God’s reign” is being realized in our hearing.
I suppose the most interesting character in our reading this morning is this newest convert. I’m not sure what it says about our modern sensibilities to note that this characterization, an “Ethiopian eunuch” still conjures images of far away, “ends of the earth,” exotic reaches, and an ambiguous social standing – a man, but snot a full man; a foreigner, but somehow an even more “alien” one. In our reading and hearing over the years, and in many-a scriptural commentary, we’ve been quick to marginalize this new convert before his Christian conversion because of his double “abnormality,” foreign and castrated. But the verse we read say nothing of these peculiarities.
No, the Ethiopian is someone wealthy enough tot be riding in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help. He is also hospitable enough to invite Philip to join him in his chariot. This man is an insider in his own world, but an outsider to this new faith. No less important than any other inquirer, he simply needs someone who has felt the embrace of God to teach him. That’s where the Spirit leads Philip.
Philip, of course, is the character in our reading that we’re supposed to identify with and emulate. We, too, are supposed to “know our scripture” and “know the God of our scripture” well enough that we, too, might get into conversation with anyone and everyone who feels the embrace of God but doesn’t understand the potential of that “embrace,” doesn’t know how to take the cold words on a page and experience the warm grip of God’s Spirit. We are to be interpreter and teacher, evangelist and friend.
But there’s a third character in this story that caught my attention right from the start and that I suggest offers us our most provocative call this morning. (Anyone? This third character in our reading?) The Holy Spirit, the “angel of the Lord,” as described in our reading. That which turned Philip around to face the “ends of the earth;” that prodded Philip to “go over to this chariot” that held the strangest of strangers and “join it;” that infused the baptism and made it, as all baptisms, sacred; and, that “snatched” Philip away when all was finished and sent him on new roads that would lead him, finally, home to Caesarea.
Here’s the question for this day, indeed the question for the last three weeks as we’ve moved with the apostles, following the command of Jesus, from our familiar hometowns, into the surrounding countryside and finally into the wilderness beyond our known worlds: If we – like Peter or Stephen or, this morning, like Philip – if we were to surrender control of our own travel plans for even one hour, where might the Spirit of God lead us?
In being open to the Spirit, preachers like Philip found themselves in the oddest situations with the most surprising sorts of people. What about us? When was the last time we found ourselves in an odd situation with surprising people? Or more to the point of our sermon question, and close to the question of the Ethiopian in our reading: What has prevented us from meeting God in the unfamiliar and sharing the love of Christ with a complete stranger?
Has it been fear? Our Gospel message from beginning to end is “do not be afraid.” Perhaps you have some concern about being rude, of intruding on someone’s private space? I’d remind you that while our faith is personal, it’s not private. Or maybe you are concerned that you’ll say the wrong thing? Then I’d suggest in your approach that you don’t use words. What is preventing you from offering your life to others in such a way that they may find deeper life in the love you share with them, a love empowered by your God and by those here that you are so intimately in relationship with? What is preventing you?
It’s not the Spirit of God, that’s for sure. For that reality is at work always, calling us to worlds beyond our own and to worlds bigger than our own. We’ve read and watched as the Spirit of God, the promise of Christ, has empowered followers to reach out to new people and to set out for new lands. It’s time for us to follow. A good opportunity only about seven hours away. Invite someone to tonight’s social here. They won’t have to listen to a sermon and there’s free ice cream, so this is and easy one. Whenever and whatever you do, just do it. Surrender control of your own travel plans and let the Spirit lead you to new people and new places. That’s it.
For two weeks now, two Sundays, we’ve left the sermon proclamation open-ended with no “amen.” This morning we close the Word proclaimed with our familiar seal once again. May we, like those who followed first, this “life after Jesus,” have the courage and the openness to follow where the Spirit is leading us. May God take our lives and use them ever, only, all for Love.
May it be so. So be it. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 25, 2017